Lounging in the sand isn’t the only way to take advantage of Panama City’s prime location on the Gulf of Mexico. Calm waters are perfect for sailing and snorkeling, while a surprisingly robust ship graveyard has turned this region into a magnet for wreck divers. These six activities will have you getting in, on, near and under the action-packed Gulf waters.
Dolphin sunset cruise
The Gulf of Mexico boasts America’s highest concentration of bottlenose dolphins, and the jetties around Shell Island are a particularly rich gathering point for the playful sea creatures. Operators in the area offer dolphin-seeing tours by jet ski and speed boat, but it’s hard to beat Island Time Sailing’s leisurely sunset tour on a 50-foot catamaran — and don’t miss their famous rum punch. 3605 Thomas Dr., Panama City Beach, islandtimesailing.com
The waters off this stretch of the Panhandle have been called the shipwreck capital of the South, thanks to famous boats like the 465-foot British tanker Empire Mica, which was torpedoed by Nazi U-boats in 1942. Today, charter companies like Dive Locker will take you underwater to explore artificial reefs made from ships, barges and bridge spans. 1010 Thomas Dr., Panama City Beach, divelocker.net.
Some of the best waves on the Panhandle can be found around Shell Island and St. Andrews State Park. A local institution, Mr. Surf’s Surf Shop rents boards — plus skim boards and paddleboards — and offers daily surf reports. 7220 Thomas Dr., Panama City Beach, mrsurfs.com.
You don’t need any previous boating experience to rent a pontoon — they’re extremely easy to operate, and the waters in these parts can be calm as a bathtub. Lagoon Pontoons even offers double-decker boats, equipped with slides and swim ladders. They’re the ultimate way to get out and explore uninhabited Shell Island and snorkel its surrounding grass flats and rock jetties. 5201 N. Lagoon Dr., Panama City Beach, lagoonpontoon.com.
You don’t have to book a charter to try your hand at reeling in a big one. Stretching 1,500 feet, the Russell-Field Pier is so long that you can catch a host of different species depending where you cast. Near the beach, you might hook Spanish mackerel, speckled trout or redfish, while the end of the pier offers cobia, kingfish, amberjack and even sharks. 16101 Front Beach Rd., visitpanamacitybeach.com
You might not see the colorful reefs you’d find in the Caribbean, but there’s plenty of sea life to be found close to the shore, from sea urchins and hermit crabs to blue and yellow tangs and sergeant majors. If you’re lucky, you might even encounter sea turtles, rays and sharks. Book an excursion with Dolphin and Snorkel Tours to get better acquainted with life under the sea. 3901 Thomas Dr., Panama City Beach, dolphinandsnorkeltours.com.